Sunday, March 28, 2010
Unfortunately, it is not only popular culture that is prone to ignore Winter. It seems to me that there have been too few — or too few good — depictions of Winter in Western art and literature. There are of course exceptions, and I will devote the rest of this post to three of my favourite literary Winters.
The first comes from Horace’s Odes, 1.9, which for some reason I fell in love with while having to translate it in grade nine Latin class. Rather than subject you to the Latin, I’ll give you John Conington’s translation, which is fairly accurate, while retaining some of the poetic qualities of the original:
See, how it stands, one pile of snow,
Soracte! ‘neath the pressure yield
Its groaning woods; the torrents’ flow
With clear sharp ice is all congeal’d.
Heap high the logs, and melt the cold,
Good Thaliarch; draw the wine we ask,
That mellower vintage, four-year-old,
From out the cellar’d Sabine cask.
The future trust with Jove; when He
Has still’d the warring tempests’ roar
On the vex’d deep, the cypress-tree
And aged ash are rock’d no more.
O, ask not what the morn will bring,
But count as gain each day that chance
May give you; sport in life’s young spring,
Nor scorn sweet love, nor merry dance,
While years are green, while sullen eld
Is distant. Now the walk, the game,
The whisper’d talk at sunset held,
Each in its hour, prefer their claim.
Sweet too the laugh, whose feign’d alarm
The hiding-place of beauty tells,
The token, ravish’d from the arm
Or finger, that but ill rebels.
(Incidentally, to cleanse the palate, I recommend Ode 4.7 as a nice little description of the coming of Spring and the banishing of Winter.)
My next example is Ambrose Philips’ (1675-1749) poem, “Epistle to the Earl of Dorset from Copenhagen, 1709,” in his Pastorals, Epistles, Odes, and Other Original Poems (London: J. and R. Tonson, 1748), pp. 64-66:
From frozen climes, and endless tracts of snow,
From streams which northern winds forbid to flow,
What present shall the Muse to Dorset bring,
Or how, so near the Pole, attempt to sing?
The hoary winter here conceals from sight
All pleasing objects which to verse invite.
The hills and dales, and the delightful woods,
The flow’ry plains, and silver-streaming floods,
By snow disguis’d, in bright confusion lie,
And with one dazzling waste fatigue the eye.
No gentle breathing breeze prepares the spring,
No birds within the desert region sing.
The ships, unmov’d, the boist’rous winds defy,
While rattling chariots o’er the ocean fly.
The vast Leviathan wants room to play,
And spouts his waters in the face of day.
The starving wolves along the main sea prowl,
And to the moon in icy valleys howl.
O’er many a shining league the level main
Here spreads itself into a glassy plain:
There solid billows of enormous size,
Alps of green ice, in wild disorder rise.
And yet but lately have I seen, ev’n here,
The winter in a lovely dress appear.
‘Ere yet the clouds let fall the treasur’d snow,
Or winds begun through hazy skies to blow,
At ev’ning a keen eastern breeze arose,
And the descending rain unsully’d froze.
Soon as the silent shades of night withdrew,
The ruddy morn disclos’d at once to view
The face of nature in a rich disguise,
And brighten’d ev’ry object to my eyes:
For ev’ry shrub, and ev’ry blade of grass,
And ev’ry pointed thorn, seem’d wrought in glass;
In pearls and rubies rich the hawthorns show,
While through the ice the crimson berries glow.
The thick-sprung reeds, which wat’ry marshes yield,
Seem’d polish’d lances in a hostile field.
The stag in limpid currents, with surprise,
Sees crystal branches on his forehead rise;
The spreading oak, the beech, and tow’ring pine,
Glaz’d over, in the freezing aether shine.
The frighted birds the rattling branches shun,
Which wave and glitter in the distant sun.
When if a sudden gust of wind arise,
The brittle forest into atoms flies,
The crackling wood beneath the tempest bends,
And in a spangled show’r the prospect ends:
Or, if a southern gale the region warm,
And by degrees unbind the wintry charm,
The traveller a miry country sees,
And journeys sad beneath the dropping trees:
Like some deluded peasant Merlin leads
Through fragrant bow’rs, and through delicious meads,
While here enchanted gardens to him rise,
And airy fabrics there attract his eyes,
His wand’ring feet the magic paths pursue,
And while he thinks the fair illusion true,
The trackless scenes disperse in fluid air,
And woods, and wilds, and thorny ways appear,
A tedious road the weary wretch returns,
And, as he goes, the transient vision mourns.
The next piece is a passage from Lord Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. II, p. 383, in which he describes the polar regions in sublime prose. The piece is fanciful, to say the least, as obviously Shaftesbury had never been anywhere near the Arctic. Now, you wouldn’t be wrong in noticing that there are some similarities between Philips’ and Shaftesbury’s imagery, as the two men knew each other, and the latter was probably influenced by the former’s work, which had appeared in 1709 in the Tatler. Here is the passage:
“How oblique and faintly looks the Sun on yonder Climates, far remov’d from him! How tedious are the Winters there! How deep the Horrors of the Night, and how uncomfortable even the Light of Day! The freezing Winds employ their fiercest Breath, yet are not spent with blowing. The Sea, which elsewhere is scarce confin’d within its Limits, lies here immur’d in Walls of Chrystal. The Snow covers the Hills, and almost fills the lowest Valleys. How wide and deep it lies, incumbent o’er the Plains, hiding the sluggish Rivers, the Shrubs, and Trees, the Dens of Beasts, and Mansions of distress’d and feeble Men!—See! where they lie confin’d, hardly secure against the raging Cold, or the Attacks of the wild Beasts, now Masters of the wasted Field, and forc’d by Hunger out of the naked Woods.—Yet not dishearten’d (such is the Force of human Breasts) but thus provided for, by Art and Prudence, the kind compensating Gifts of Heaven, Men and their Herds may wait for a Release. For at length the Sun approaching, melts the Snow, sets longing Men at liberty, and affords them Means and Time to make provision against the next Return of Cold. It breaks the icy Fetters of the Main; where vast Sea-Monsters pierce thro’ floating Islands, with Arms which can withstand the Chrystal Rock: whilst others, who of themselves seem great as Islands, are by their Bulk alone arm’d against all but Man; whose Superiority over Creatures of such stupendous Size and Force, shou’d make him mindful of his Privilege of Reason, and force him humbly to adore the great Composer of these wondrous Frames, and Author of his own superior Wisdom.”
Some may find it strange that none of my examples are Canadian. In truth, I have no explanation for this. The above are simply pieces that struck a chord with me. In any case, I welcome submissions from readers of their own favourite literary winters.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
The issue of foreign aid to developing countries was very much in the news a few years back, thanks in large part to U2 singer Bono, who, along with others, was urging governments of developed nations to contribute their promised share of around 7% of GDP to help poorer countries. Since then, the issue seems to have slipped under the radar, mostly because, since the financial meltdown, the money is no longer there to give — or at least, that is the perception.
(More correctly, Bono was asking for rich nations to donate 1% of GDP more than they already are, or than they have pledged. Thus, the total percentage of GDP would vary by nation. I’m using 7% as a realistic example; some countries donate much less and some more. Canada’s record here is worse than Canadians probably like to think it is.)
However, before the world’s economy went belly-up, many citizens of rich nations, of supposedly good intentions, were firmly behind Bono and company. But I often wonder whether those good intentions were really so good, or whether there was a certain degree of bad faith implicated in them.
There are sceptics out there who make some pretty plausible arguments that much aid does more harm than good to recipient nations. Lord Peter Bauer has devoted much of his career as an economist to this very thesis, while more recently Roger C. Riddell has devoted his very interesting book Does Foreign Aid Really Work? (Oxford University Press, 2007) to a penetrating critique of the foreign aid industry.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against foreign aid as such. But one doesn’t have to be a complete naysayer in order to appreciate the very real complexities involved in large-scale interventions in the economies of the poor, even with the best of intentions. My reading recommendation here is Sir Partha Dasgupta’s magisterial An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution (Oxford University Press, 1993), which, while not making a case against foreign aid per se, raises doubts regarding many widely-held assumptions about what causes poverty, what kind of aid is likely to be effective, and how it should be delivered.
I do not intend to involve myself in any of these issues here, which mostly turn on the question of efficacy. Although I am skeptical of the ability of many aid efforts to effect much good, I am not against all such efforts, and many of them I find ingenious and worthwhile (e.g. Muhammad Yunus’ truly groundbreaking work in making microcredit loans available to the poor, for which he received a Nobel Prize for Economics). Instead I should like to focus very specifically on the campaigns of Bono and others to get governments of rich nations to give over a certain percentage of their GDPs to poorer countries.
Even if you happen to agree that more should be done, is it true that governments are the best agents of change here? After all, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from donating 7% of your income to aid organizations. As a matter of fact, this option might even be better, since you would then have a degree of choice as to who gets it, and you can direct it to where you believe it can do the most good. The rather checkered history of foreign aid and development demonstrates that governments are not infallible judges of what the poor need, to put the point charitably (pardon the pun).
Ah yes, but this would require effort. You’d have to do some footwork, inform yourself about the problems of the poor and about who is working on solutions to those problems. Best just to let the government do all that, no? Never mind how much of that money will be wasted in transaction costs as it wends its weary way through different levels of bureaucratic administration, or gets siphoned off by whichever organizations and NGOs have the best lobbyists with the readiest access to the ears of government.
Am I sounding cynical? Well, I’m not finished: I have a hunch that many — even most — of Bono’s admirers, if they were instead urged by him to donate 7% of their own pre-tax salaries to foreign aid (which is, after all, what he proposes to do, only more indirectly), would baulk at the suggestion. “I can’t afford to give that much!” they’d cry. “Let the rich donate it from their heaps of treasure!”
And here is the nub of the matter. People who sigh and are filled with warm feelings as they gush about “What a nice man that Bono fellow is,” fail to see the bad faith shown by their own proposed passivity. If the concept of 7% of GDP means anything to them, I suspect it means any or all of the following (with my comments in italics):
1. It’s 7% of some abstract heap of extra money already sitting around somewhere unused. Not bloody likely.
2. It’s a quantity of money that the government has access to by some magical means. Yes, like printing it (see #5).
3. It’s a quantity of money that is really very small and therefore won’t be noticed. How much is 7% of your salary? Would you notice it if you received a bill in the mail tomorrow requiring you to pay that amount?
4. It’s money that the government will get by taxing rich people. In other words, not by taxing me (see also #5).
5. It's money that can be borrowed. Never mind from whom (e.g. our children and grandchildren, who get no say in the matter), and never mind that it will need to be repaid with interest (making the final donation amount to much more than 7% of GDP).
Of course, it’s almost never suggested that the 7% is money that can be provided by cuts to services we currently receive from government. No sir. We won’t be doing that (at least not with the services you and I receive).
I get the general impression that a vague, ill-defined feeling of goodwill towards the world’s poor motivates the demand for governments to pledge 7% of GDP, with the unspoken wish that it be someone else who ponies up the dough. There’s a cheap thrill one can get from the feeling of moral superiority derived from simply willing that good be done. If I will that good be done, it must mean that I possess a good will, and by extension, it must mean that I am a good person, more importantly, a better person than others. (Ouch! Now there’s cynicism for you.)
I call the thrill cheap because it literally costs nothing, but it only lasts as long as you manage not to ask yourself what you are doing to contribute to the good that you will. Mere “good will towards men” (like its close cousin, “faith without works”) is the junk food of altruism: passing pleasant, but not very nourishing spiritually.
On the other hand, I’m sure there are people who honestly not only will the good, but are willing to do good, and who wouldn’t mind paying 7% of their income to help the less fortunate around the world. I’ve met a few of these extraordinary people myself. Again, to them I say: Go ahead and do it. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you. To those whose motivations are not so noble, I say: Let me see you spend your money first, before you use the coercive powers of the state to pay for your noble schemes using other people’s money.
Just as bad, relying on the government to donate on our behalf may be productive of two ill effects. First, it may “crowd out” those good people who would otherwise have donated 7% (or whatever the amount) from their own pockets. After all, if they’re already going to be taxed that amount for much the same purpose, then why shouldn’t they keep their money for other uses? And arguably, money donated privately might have been spent more efficiently than money collected by taxation and then “donated” by government, if for no other reason than because of the greater transaction costs associated with the latter method.
Second, if we honestly believe it’s our duty to help the poor, by relying on government to do it, we thereby abdicate our own moral responsibility. We merit little or no praise for our “action” (for it’s really passivity), and at the same time we pass up the opportunity to exercise our virtue, which can be likened to allowing a muscle to atrophy through disuse. At the very least, we lose out on that very real and lasting pleasant feeling to be had by actually doing something for the poor, instead of merely talking about it.
Incidentally, it should be mentioned that Bono’s own financial commitment to the world’s poor is not without its sceptics. It would seem that much of his large income is funneled through various tax-avoidance schemes. It’s hypocritical, to say the least, to demand that your government give more money to the poor, while hiding from that same government the very tax funds it must use to satisfy your demand. Perhaps Bono is yet another example of that vague wish for someone else to help the poor (and of course it doesn’t hurt that it’s also a convenient and relatively costless way to boost sales of concert tickets, records, and merchandise). In this connection, I cannot help but end with a quote from William Graham Sumner’s (1840-1910) wise little essay “The Forgotten Man”:
The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C’s interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I was the other Day involv’d in the renewal of a Lease with one of my Tenants. We had come to an Understanding, as of one Man to another, with respect to Terms, Rents, etc. and had shaked Hands. After writing up the Terms into a Contract and sitting down to sign it, I suddenly became mightily perplex’d (as is my wont) over the philosophical Implications of what we were about.
You see, I was struck by the Absurdity of being obliged to go to the considerable Expense of having my Lawyer contrive a Piece of Parchment, and then have it signed, witness’d and notarised, all of which is merely to repeat, in a new Form, all that we had already agreed to in Words and had seal’d by Shake of Hand. Wherefore the Need, pray, for all this high Ceremony?
Perchance HORACE was correct in opining that iura inventi metu iniusti fateare necesse est, tempora si fastosque velis evolvere mundi [“If you will but turn over the annals and records of the world, you must needs confess that justice was born of the fear of injustice.” Horace, Satires, 1.3.111-112 — Ed.]. Still, if I believed my Tenant were such a Knave as to commit a Fraud upon me, why wou’d I consider entering into any Bargain with such a Character in the first Place? After all, I shou’d rather do Business with a trustworthy Man, even if he shou’d offer me inferior Terms, than to play the Bubble, and Hazard my Wealth upon a bad Wager with a worthless Fellow, one who wou’d as soon pick my Pockets as do Business with me. In short, I shou’d much rather do Business with no Man than with such an one as the latter.
Nay, I cou’d not have thought my Tenant a Knave. Surely I trusted him as much as I wou’d trust any other Man who had given me no previous Cause to doubt his Honour. But there, you see, is the Trouble: in brief, he is a Man, and being such, as Sir Thomas BROWNE hath it, he is a Monster, that is, “a Composition of Man and Beast” [Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Pt. I, §53 — Ed.] Sadly, we are but fallen Creatures, and tho’ the greatest Part of Humankind shou’d be Honest, or at least Honest the greater Part of the Time, yet some Number needs must be Knaves, and which are which we cannot always tell,
For neither Man nor Angel can discern
Hypocrisie, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone
[John Milton, Paradise Lost, III: 682-684].
Quite beside the Difficulty of discovering who is a Knave and who is honest, there is our common Predicament, which is that so much must depend upon the being able to trust in the Word of another. Without Trust and plain-dealing, Humankind wou’d be no more civilised than a Troop of mangy Baboons, or what is worse, as violent and unsociable as wild Tygers. In short, instead of being Browne’s composite Monsters, we wou’d be Beasts intire.
Indeed, because so much hangs upon the ability to trust in another’s Word, I find myself in concord with honest old MONTAIGNE, who was of the Opinion that “lying is an accursed Vice, for it is only our Words which bind us together and make us Human. If we but understood the Horror and Gravity of lying we wou’d perceive that it is more deserving of the Stake or the Gibbet than other Crimes” [Michel de Montaigne, “On Liars,” Essays. Darlington is somewhat liberal in his translation — Ed.].
If we must presume in our private Dealings that our Fellows are Rogues, we must be doubly cautious in publick Dealings, where the greater number of Men involv’d must of necessity mean the likelihood of a greater number of Knaves. Tho’ the barest Possibility of Knavery wou’d necessitate Prudence in a Man’s private Affairs, the inexorable Arithmetick of larger Numbers wou’d dictate that Prudence is a most vital Necessity in Politicks. As Mr. HUME judiciously observes, “in contriving any System of Government, and fixing the several Checks and Controuls of the Constitution, every Man ought to be supposed a Knave, and to have no other End, in all his Actions, than private Interest” [David Hume, “Of the Independency of Parliament”, in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary — Ed.]. A most wise Maxim, notwithstanding that the greater Part of those who are Subjects of the Commonwealth are honest Men.
If we must treat Citizens as if they are all Rogues, how much more so must we treat Politicians! The political Man is capable of many a Misdeed which the same Man in his private Capacity would scarce entertain, let alone perform. The plain Truth is, too many are the Temptations to which even the best of Men must be subject, and nowhere is this more true than in Politicks, where Power and Influence present a greater Number of Opportunitys for Thievery, Jobbery, and the picking of the Publick’s Pockets.
I was violently rowz’d from my Reverie by the urging of my Tenant, who was pressing me to put Quill to Parchment, which I did only with an inexplicable Heaviness of Heart, for there immediately came into my Mind the Words of Monsieur BRUYÈRE: “The Invention of legal Instruments to remind Men of what they promised, and to convince them that they did so, is a Shame and a Blot upon the Children of Men” [Jean de La Bruyère, Characters, “Of Mankind,” §27. Again, his translation is rather loose — Ed.].
I remain, Sir, ever your Servant,
Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Of course, the movie is perhaps most well-known for Michael Douglas’ portrayal of hyper-capitalist tycoon Gordon Gekko, one of the great cinematic villains. Certainly Oliver Stone intended Gekko to be understood as a villain, and in the commentary to the DVD release of Wall Street he laments the fact that so many viewers failed to appreciate his villainy. To many, Gordon Gekko is a hero.
There are a few obvious reasons for this. For one thing, like any other interesting character, Gekko’s is formed of an almost equal admixture of virtues and vices. Yes, he’s greedy and materialistic. But he’s also brash, driven, clever, and quite charming. He’s a working class kid who made good and sticks it to the Ivy League crowd. I would not myself go so far as to make the case that Gordon Gekko is a hero, but I do think that Stone was too heavy-handed in trying to make him out to be a capitalist bogeyman. I will not try to defend Gekko’s insider trading, his betrayal of his young protégé Bud Fox, nor his stock fraud. Actually the movie is not entirely clear on what exactly this fraud consists of. Others have done a pretty good job of clearing Gekko of any criminal wrongdoing, at least as judged by the somewhat more lax legal and regulatory environment of the 1980s. This is not my area of expertise, so I shall stay away from it.
Aside from his actual criminal activity, the moral case against Gekko seems to be this: he engineers takeovers of businesses in order to liquidate their assets and throw their employees out of work. Furthermore, in a speech put into his mouth towards the end of the movie, he is made to confess, “I create nothing; I own.” In short, he is supposed to be some sort of vampire, getting rich by sucking the blood of creative enterprise.
But this is too crude a picture. Yes, in his notorious speech to the shareholders of Teldar Paper he famously proclaims that “Greed is, for lack of a better term, good!” But for the life of me, I cannot find anything in that speech that is actually wrong. If I have one criticism of it, I would say that he should have replaced the term “greed” with the less provocative “self-interest”, à la Adam Smith.
As to the charge of being a parasitical liquidator, consider this. He proposes to purchase BlueStar Airlines, break it up, and sell off the assets. The land that the hangars sit on will be used for condo development, while the airplanes themselves will be sold off to “some airline in Mexico stupid enough to buy them.” The employees of BlueStar themselves recognize that the airline is being “squeezed by the majors”, indicating that there is already too much competition to make the company viable. Yes, it is proposed to keep the airline going with the help of wage concessions from the unions, but assuming that Gekko has a good eye for profit opportunities, and that he is correct in reckoning that liquidation will be more profitable than keeping the planes in the air, what exactly is wrong with what he is doing?
True, many employees will lose their jobs. But others will eventually get jobs building those condos, etc. (And in fact, BlueStar could probably have afforded to hire more workers if the unions hadn’t been artificially inflating wages and freezing out their non-union brothers and sisters, who would have been willing to work there for less than their unionized counterparts were earning. So who are the real parasites here?)
Many are inclined to believe that Gekko's role in the economy is parasitical, that is, they believe he adds nothing of value to it. He offers no tangible service; he produces no product. This is also commonly the attitude taken towards certain other much-despised economic roles. An example here might be the arbitrageur. An arbitrageur, as the name indicates, is one who engages in arbitrage. That is, he takes advantage of price differences between markets to buy something — whether it be a currency, commodity, or security — at a low price in one market, and then quickly sell it at a higher price in another market. Again, arbitrage seems to many to be a case where the arbitrageur adds nothing of value to the economy, but rather simply sucks profits out of the economic activity of others.
But this attitude is somewhat short-sighted. Arbitrage can serve some valuable purposes in an economy. For one thing, it contributes to the convergence of prices in different markets. The speed at which prices converge is a sign of efficiency in markets. Relatedly, arbitrage performs a signalling role in the economy, transmitting information about markets; heavy arbitrage activity draws attention to the existence of market inefficiencies. Where in the previous paragraph it was said that the arbitrageur sucks up profits from the economic activity of others, we might rather say that he sucks up profits from the inefficient activities of others.
The moral here is that producing goods and services is not the only way to contribute to an economy. The fact is, it is possible for the production of goods and services and the allocation of resources in an economy to be done very inefficiently. The leveraged takeover artists, arbitrageurs, and Gordon Gekkos of the world can correct these shortcomings and make the economy more efficient in the long run. At least that is the theory.
As is common in economics, there are two stories to be told here, a story about that which is seen, and a story about that which is unseen. In the morality tale of Wall Street we are invited to see the employees that will lose their jobs in the buyout and dismantling of BlueStar Airlines. We are not invited to see most of these employees subsequently finding other jobs elsewhere (although, the sad fact is, some of them will not find other jobs, or will find lower-paying ones). Nor are we invited to see the other people who will find jobs in the businesses that will be built up from the cast-off assets of BlueStar.
The fact is that, much like a functioning ecosystem, an economy needs its scavengers and decomposers, those whose role is to destroy non-viable entities so that better and more viable entities can have the opportunity to be born and thrive. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called this process “creative destruction”. Returning to the case of BlueStar, it so happens that valuable resources and assets were being tied up in an enterprise that was no longer making the most efficient use of them. By liquidating the company, those assets were being freed to be allocated to more efficient uses, ones that would ultimately create more value. This is the naked truth behind Gekko’s speech to Teldar’s shareholders, when he says, “I am not a destroyer of companies; I am a liberator of them.”
If Oliver Stone really wanted his character to be seen as a villain, he would have been better-advised to stick to the insider-trading storyline, or to the morality tale about a man who betrays a friend. His commentary on Gekko’s other role in the capitalist system — as creative destroyer — is ill-informed and not to the point.
Gordon Gekko is a great character, but he is only half a villain.